Slowpitch softball coming of age on the world stage
Slowpitch softball will take a giant leap forward in the nearest future when the first-ever WBSC Co-ed Slowpitch World Cup for national teams is expected to be held.
Slowpitch -- especially the co-ed variety – has long been a major participation sport in North, South, and Central America and has been growing steadily in Europe over the past couple of decades in both quantity and quality, as well as in countries in Asia and the Pacific region.
Twenty-five years ago, however, almost no one in mainland Europe played slowpitch on a serious basis. The format had a reputation as a recreational version of the game best suited to players at the end of a competitive fastpitch or baseball career.
But over on the northwest fringe of Europe – in Great Britain and Ireland – co-ed slowpitch was developing as both a social sport that could bring a wide range of new participants to the game and as a serious competition format that could challenge the best athletes and players. This development was aided by the growth of strong city-based leagues that keyed on developing mass participation. Eventually, news about this began to filter through to the Continent.
In 1998, the European Softball Federation took the plunge and scheduled the first-ever Co-ed Slowpitch European Championship. The tournament, which took place on a university campus near London, was a modest affair, with just four teams: Great Britain, the Czech Republic, Ireland, and Guernsey.
The Czech Republic, which has been a strong and faithful supporter of European slowpitch from the beginning, was the only country from the mainland to take part, but they put up a strong showing, finishing second to Great Britain in a closely-contested final series.
It would be wrong to say that European slowpitch exploded from there – but it certainly started to grow.
Five countries played in the second Co-ed Slowpitch European Championship in Ireland in 2000 and six countries took part in 2002 when the tournament was played on the Continent for the first time, in the Czech Republic. Numbers fluctuated after that, but there were eight countries competing in 2010 and a highwater mark of eleven countries in 2019, the last year the tournament was held.
Congratulations to GB - Coed Slowpitch Champion of 2019 pic.twitter.com/7ssgAvDp3B
— Softball Europe (@ESFsoftball) July 21, 2019
Expanding the stage
Meanwhile, the International Softball Federation supported the growth in slowpitch activity by organising what they called a Slowpitch World Cup at their headquarters in Plant City, Florida, with a first edition in 2002, another in 2005, and then annual competitions from 2014 through 2018.
These tournaments were open to both national and club teams and were not a true World Cup in the current WBSC meaning of the term. But they did spark participation in international slowpitch by teams from Europe, North America, and the Caribbean.
More opportunities in Europe
The growth in participation at European Championships from 1998 through 2019 reflected a parallel growth in slowpitch leagues and tournaments in Europe, as growing numbers of players – including those who were also active in fastpitch or baseball – began to take part.
This led directly to the creation of a Co-ed Slowpitch European Cup for club teams that had its first outing in 2007, with five teams playing in a Paris suburb. Four years later there were seven teams taking part, and in 2014 the competition became a biennial European Super Cup, with 16 teams playing when the event was held in 2018.
That same year marked the start of the Men’s Slowpitch European Championship, with seven teams taking part, including Italy and the Netherlands, two countries that had never previously entered a European slowpitch event.
Great Britain crowned the first-ever Men’s Slowpitch European Champion#lovesoftballhttps://t.co/CQzKdW0XXO@WBSC pic.twitter.com/KnhpNEPl6c
— Softball Europe (@ESFsoftball) June 16, 2018
World Cup Qualifier
The 2021 European Co-ed Slowpitch Championship was unfortunately cancelled due to Covid. But the event will be played from 11-16 July 2022 in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and will be a unique competition – the first-ever Qualifier for a full-scale Slowpitch World Cup.
Though the number of teams that can qualify from Europe is not yet known, the prospect of earning a World Cup place attracted ten entries to the European Championship this summer.
As for the World Cup itself, the WBSC has still to finalise all the details, but there is a definite commitment to hold the event at some point in the near future, and entries are expected from virtually every world region.
When all those national teams take the field, co-ed slowpitch softball will have definitely come of age on a world stage.
/ Bob Fromer
Cover photo by Matej Mrevlje